Some musings on historical contingency, randomness, and my own desire to be an optimizer

It just hit me how the fact that this pandemic probably escaped from a lab in China means that this event, with global and personal consequences, is so contingent. There are other Everett branches where it didn’t happen, and I am going about my life as I would have.

I have a weight in my stomach about this. Especially in so far as the quarantine is good for me, and I am learning things or building skills / meta-skills that will have a permanent impact on my life, it is unsettling to think that they depend on fate. Am I going to be consistently less effective in those other worlds, because this “lucky” break didn’t happen? (Interestingly, that is the horrifying thing to me, not the thought of all the luck that I’ve missed out on that went to other worlds.) My growth and power is so fragile.

Of course there have been other events like this: WWII was contingent on Hitler’s birth, and that massively shaped the world I live in now. Most earths don’t look like this one for that reason. There’s still an intact European Jewry, the balance of power looks very different, and science may not have been institutionalized and may not be state-funded. How were Atomic bombs discovered in those world? How did the computer revolution happen?

And of course my personal life is incredibly contingent. If I hadn’t come across Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard, would I be on a path of ambition? If I hadn’t gone to U Chicago, and met Stefan, would I have have even encountered LessWrong. Reading the sequences, at that time in my life, radically, radically transformed my trajectory.

But this is a huge contingent event occurring after I came into myself as a conscious entity, and after I had “gotten my footing” in the world. This pandemic has changed, and is apt to change a lot for me, but only by luck.

I think that this one stings in particular (at least in part) because, in principle I could have taken time and space to do the things that I’m doing now. But I predict that I wouldn’t have, unless forced. I can feel how that’s a bias. How across the multiverse, I’m less strong than I might otherwise be, because I’m not resisting that temptation. And here, I needed random chance to save me, instead of bootstrapping by my own power.

This is a reminder to me that I want to be an optimizer: I want to be the sort of thing that, whatever sort of universe it finds itself in, convergently steers that world towards the same state. Obviously, the worlds don’t actually converge, because of how much is determined by the randomness, and because I am small. But I want it to be the case that my situation defines the shape of the problems I have to solve, and the tools that I have to work with (and build myself from), but that my situation never sways my basic ability to steer.

I want to be the sort of thing that systematically moves in right direction, no matter where in the multiverse I find myself.

One thought on “Some musings on historical contingency, randomness, and my own desire to be an optimizer

  1. In me, the pain is particularly acute when I think that whether I become a robust optimizer is contingent. It’s less bad if I think I’m on the path to optimizer-hood, but currently fail in lots of ways I need contingency to correct for.

    At least, this lessens the pain to the extent I think I have enough time to course-correct afterwards


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